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U.S. Faulted on Training of Scholars

By Debra Viadero — May 07, 2007 7 min read
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College and university programs that prepare the nation’s education researchers suffer from mission muddle, a lack of common and rigorous standards, and inadequate resources, asserts a hard-hitting report set for release this week.

The report is all the more damning because it comes from one of the field’s own, Arthur E. Levine, who stepped down in 2005 after 12 years as the president of Teachers College, Columbia University, one of the country’s best-known education schools.

The report, “Educating Researchers,” is posted by the Education Schools Project.

The new report, 92 pages long, is based on a four-year study of the schools, departments, and colleges of education that offer doctoral degrees in research. What Mr. Levine found, he said in an interview last week, was “worse than what I expected.”

While some programs were excellent, he said, others produced scholars without the expertise to conduct the research needed to guide the nation’s school improvement undertakings.

Arthur E. Levine

“As a nation, the price we pay for inadequately prepared researchers and inadequate research is an endless carousel of untested and unproven reform efforts, dominated by the fad du jour,” writes Mr. Levine, now the president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation in Princeton, N.J. “Ideology trumps evidence in formulating educational policy. And our children are denied the quality of education they need and deserve.”

The report is the third in a series of high-profile studies that Mr. Levine has produced over the past two years that shine a critical spotlight on education schools. The previous ones dealt with teacher education and preparing school leaders. (“Study Blasts Leadership Preparation,” March 16, 2005 and “Prominent Teacher-Educator Assails Field, Suggests New Accrediting Body in Report,” Sept. 20, 2006.)

Ideas Draw Fire

The report offers recommendations that, if acted on, could reshape the landscape of doctoral programs in education research.

They include: reserving the Ph.D. degree in education for researchers; shuttering doctoral programs that aren’t up to snuff; setting common standards for both studies in the field and the programs that prepare researchers; concentrating programs to develop scholars who discover new knowledge in the most research-oriented universities; and strengthening connections between research and policy and practice.

As with Mr. Levine’s two previous studies, the latest one drew swift criticism from some of those who saw advance copies. Some education researchers and education school officials said the report missed the point or faulted it for methodological missteps. Others voiced skepticism that Mr. Levine’s improvement prescriptions were likely to work.

“I don’t think this report tells us much that isn’t well-known among people who have thought about these issues,” said Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, a former dean of Harvard University’s graduate school of education and now a professor of history of American education there. “I don’t think this report gives us any new levers with which to make change.”

Nonetheless, said Deborah Loewenberg Ball, the dean of the education school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, the report is timely, because of the growing appetite for evidence-based solutions to persistent problems, such as how to close the achievement gap.

“But the issue isn’t just to train people in methods or how to get the rigor right,” she added. It’s how to cultivate scholars who know enough about the dynamics of schools to frame the research questions that get to the heart of those problems. That should be the unique contribution of education schools, Ms. Ball said. “I’m worried that this report will distract attention from that,” she added.

Quality Criticized

The nation’s 1,206 schools, colleges, and departments of education award more than 15 percent of all U.S. doctorates, according to the report. For his study, Mr. Levine sent surveys to the deans and department chairs of all those programs, and to representative groups of program faculty, alumni, and principals. Case studies were also conducted at 28 programs chosen to reflect the diversity in doctoral programs for education researchers.

Shaping Scholarship

In a study of the preparation of education scholars, the Education Schools Project makes recommendations that it says have been made before but not acted on.

DISTINGUISH DEGREES: Award the Ph.D., and only the Ph.D., to students who have successfully completed doctoral programs to prepare researchers.
“Today the Doctor of Philosophy degree (Ph.D.) and the Doctor of Education degree (Ed.D.), the two doctorates awarded in education, are used interchangeably.”

REDEFINE MISSIONS: Diversify the research missions of colleges and universities and offer programs to prepare education researchers only at certain kinds of institutions.
“This differentiation of roles might slow the race by institutions with insufficient resources to gain doctoral-degree authority ... [and] raise research quality.”

RAISE THE BAR: Establish high and clearly defined standards for education research and doctoral programs and close those that don’t meet the standards.
“The quality of education research, in and of itself, was mixed: Education professors were critical of the quality of research in the field; standards and quality controls for research were absent; and the research was cited and replicated at lower rates than research in other fields.”

CONTROL QUALITY: Establish effective means of quality control within the education research community.
“The simple fact is that if strong and clear standards are not set for education research by the education community, they will surely be set by government, which is likely to become increasingly intrusive in the field.”

MAKE CONNECTIONS: Strengthen connections between education research and the worlds of policy and practice; establish closer ties between education researchers and their colleagues in the arts and sciences.
“[R]esearch programs at education schools are isolated. Their faculty are disconnected from colleagues in colleges of arts and sciences. Their research is not read by policymakers or practitioners.”

SOURCE: Education Schools Project

The programs’ shortcomings reflect larger problems in a field that has come under criticism for the uneven quality of its studies, the report concludes. Just 24 percent of the faculty members surveyed, for instance, rated the scholarship produced by their education school colleagues as “good” or “excellent.”

Seventy-one percent rated their schools as “fair” or agreed that they needed “substantial improvement” in that area. The report also cites data suggesting that education journals have less impact in their field than other academic journals do in theirs.

One reason the field lacks focus, the report adds, is that it encompasses many subjects, embracing traditional disciplines such as psychology as well as newer topics like media studies.

That “amorphousness,” the report says, is reflected in the Washington-based American Educational Research Association, the leading professional group for education researchers. Its 25,000 members are divided into 12 sections and 145 special-interest groups. The organization, he writes, “is not so much a close-knit research community as a holding company in which differences among members loom larger than commonalities.”

Within education schools, the report says, mission confusion is also evident in the choice of degrees conferred to budding scholars. Some institutions award an Ed.D. to all doctoral-program graduates, regardless of whether they intend to be practitioners or researchers, while others grant the Ph.D. to both groups. Such practices, the report concludes, blur the boundaries among instructional programs and help water down research instruction.

Setting Standards

To help forge common, higher standards over what constitutes good research, Mr. Levine proposes enlisting the Chicago-based Spencer Foundation, which primarily finances education research and also underwrites coverage of that topic in Education Week, as well as the National Academy of Education, an elite scholarly group. Together, he said, the groups could create an alternative to the AERA that could set the tone for the rest of the field.

Spencer Foundation President Michael S. McPherson said that idea would be a new one for his organization. “We completely share the goal of wanting to promote production of high-quality research, trying to communicate about it, and trying to see that it makes a difference in policy,” he said. “Whether this is the right mechanism for us or anybody else is a complicated question.”

The AERA, which, with the NAE, is conducting its own study of doctoral programs in education, did not directly respond to that proposal. But AERA Executive Director Felice J. Levine questioned whether Mr. Levine had overreached his data in criticizing her group. “We think sound scholarship requires that Dr. Levine release his data so that other researchers can conduct independent analyses,” she wrote in an e-mail.

Appetite for Faculty

The study also faults education schools for failing to make research a priority and hiring faculty members with few research credentials of their own.

Mr. Levine also found a scarcity of available scholarships that could enable future scholars to study and do research full time, rather than juggling work and part-time study as many do now.

A more efficient system, Mr. Levine said, would be to redistribute education research missions among various kinds of colleges and universities.

He said programs that prepare education researchers to forge new knowledge in the field should be concentrated in top research institutions. Other kinds of schools, such as liberal arts colleges, some master’s-granting universities, and general four-year colleges, should focus on more practice-oriented research.

That idea was endorsed by Frederick M. Hess, who has written critically about education research as the director of education policy studies at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute.

“If you look at sociology or economics or math, the vast majority of instructors graduated from the top 30 or 40 institutions and the most influential researchers graduated from the same 10 or 20 institutions,” he said. “There are so many schools of education that have such an appetite for faculty that you don’t have the same kind of quality control.”

But Michael J. Feuer, the executive director of the National Academies’ division of behavioral and social sciences and education, in Washington, worried that such a change could be a wrong turn: “A separation could result in greater deterioration between what’s learned in education and what’s implemented in places where education is taking place.”

For his part, Mr. Levine said he doesn’t want to divorce research from practice, noting that he also calls for creating more professional-development schools to train teachers and researchers in real-world settings. And he acknowledged that many of his proposals were not new or easy to implement.

“Am I talking about overnight change?” he asked. “No. I’m talking about changes in degree. The time is right, and change occurs at the right times.”

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Coverage of education research is supported in part by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the May 09, 2007 edition of Education Week as U.S. Faulted On Training Of Scholars

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